Talking is extremely important!

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By: Giovanni van Zinnen

The Netherlands and Belgium won't stop discussing it: sexual abuse of children. The past few months there have been a couple more developments regarding the news coverage of 'pedophilia'. The most remarkable development was perhaps the message of Mr. Vervloesem and the Morkhoven foundation, who announced to have canceled their activities.

Besides that there were again a lot of campaign-like reports in the newspapers and on television. One evening (Tuesday 24 November) there were accounts of 'victims' and 'parents of victims' in several television programs. In both programs the opinion was voiced that offenders are not punished severely enough, because: the moment they get out of jail, their punishment is over, whereas the little victims have 'life imprisonment'.

It's sad that people are able to put so many falsehoods in one sentence. I can understand that they're shocked about what has happened to themselves or to their children, especially when we're talking about genuine abuse, and so I can see where their anger is coming from.

However, from these kinds of verdicts it can be concluded that these people, only led by common opinions, have lost sight of reality.

In the current affairs program 'Network' the case was discussed of an emotionally disturbed or retarded boy. The question was posed: 'Can a convicted pedophile return to the place where he has committed the abuse?' I believe that the boy was fourteen when his actions were discovered. He had been abusing toddlers in a playground close to his home in Almere. A sexual delinquent rather than a pedophile, I would say looking at the facts. Sadly enough, we encounter incorrect usage of terms more often... After the discovery the boy was put in an institution, but he's been released (without the neighborhood knowing about it), as he has turned eighteen. He now lives in his old home again under the condition that he doesn't have contact with children who live nearby. He is only allowed to go outside under escort. A few local residents were allowed to comment at length. Two experts tried to moderate the sometimes quite oversimplified remarks of the parents, but they did underline that their grief was what mattered the most. Our society with its 'soft' approach should finally give priority to the concerns of innocent children and their parents - this was the prevalent message.

A woman with a degree in medical ethics believed the offender had to have a chance to return to his home, but she did list an array of conditions so that the offender could be sent away immediately should he ignore them. She was quick to say that this 'threat' should always remain valid, because the suffering of the 'little victims' was infinitely much bigger. The offender would have to live with the discomfort. The parents, who weren't interviewed together with this woman, but in their own living room, asserted that their children would not dare to play outside as long as the boy lived in the neighborhood.

Of course this is nonsense. In fact these parents don't dare to let them play outside - they pass their fear on to their children. By putting the blame on the young man who has assaulted their children they are only creating a scapegoat. This is useless, because even if the boy was never to return home, there is no single guarantee that no other disturbed person will show up in the neighborhood. What the parents actually should do is instruct their children; enable them to say NO. Also, they should help their children 'forget' the incident, that is, give it a place in their lives: it's happened, but it won't happen again. At any rate the burden must be taken off the subject in the interest of their children. By continually campaigning against this particular boy, they keep bringing back memories and consequently help install a fear of strangers and of sexuality in their children.

Now that the young man has returned home, I daresay no one will be as closely watched as he will. A similar thing happened very recently to a convicted and released Amsterdam pedophile. According to the local television station, citizens are keeping an eye on him. The man in question isn't even surprised when people commit arson at his front door. Interviewed neighbors spoke out against this, as other inhabitants were in danger. The pedophile, as far as they were concerned, could burn to death. Lately I saw the documentary on Bobby Oats for a second time on Belgian television. He's a Canadian who has been in jail for years on account of sexual offenses against children. After an extensive rehabilitation program, it's impossible for him to return into society, as his former victims, now grownups, are campaigning against his release with the backup of almost the entire community. They are led by fear. These and other examples show that not only the 'victims' have life sentences. The 'offenders' are facing the same trial, because after they have served their prison sentence they find out that the community hasn't forgotten what has happened.

In my opinion the victims themselves opt for their life sentence, to a certain extent. Especially when they attach too much importance to the (sexual) incidents of the past and are unable to give them a place, for which the community is often to blame, those incidents will remain key events in their lives. This became very evident in the second program on 'child abuse' that was broadcast on 24 November: in 'Man/Woman', a program of a Christian broadcasting company, sexually abused men told their stories. Four or five 'victims' were sitting at a table and were being interviewed by a host and a hostess. The other people who were present in the studio (experts by experience?) occasionally made remarks. The men at the table all seemed to be bothered by a distorted appreciation of sex. They all believed this had been caused by incidents in their youths, because they had all had their first sexual experience with men, and, according to one of them, "it should of course have been with a girl". The others told similar stories. Each of them had as a boy had an affair with a man (without coercion, as far as I could conclude from what they said). One of them had already felt back then that it was wrong and dirty, another one had later on got in doubt as to his sexual identity. All of them assured that during their youth they actually preferred girls to men. Nevertheless they all agreed to have enjoyed the sexual contact and that it had happened with their consent. "To put it briefly, your mind disagreed, but your body reacted differently," the host said, trying to show that they were not to blame. "And how are you going to cope with it? You can hate the offender, you can shoot him, but is that a solution?" The 'victims' assured that they were able to cope a lot better since they had started to realize that nothing was their fault. Those men were the perpetrators and the boys themselves couldn't be incriminated. How long did it take you to realize that? asked the host. "Well, there have been a lot of talks with social workers," one of the 'victims' answered.

Of course it remained unsaid that many people have their first sexual experience with someone of the same sex, and later on just become heterosexuals. Likewise it remained unsaid that many people have their first sexual experience with someone of the opposite sex, and later on just become homosexuals. None of the 'experts' wanted to draw the conclusion that the struggle of these four or five men, who had once enjoyed homosexual behavior, and who were now uncertain about their sexual identity, might be the fault of the community, of society which so likes to label and tag people. No, it greatly benefited the Christian broadcasting corporation to have it announced that all of these men were now married. The problems concerning marriage and sexuality could all be traced back to the abuse they had endured in their youths.

Quotations were read from a letter of an offender who felt responsible for and guilty about what had happened. An expert considered this letter a rarity, because most perpetrators put the blame on incidents that happened when they themselves were young, or on the surroundings, or on the church, shortly: on something else. They also want to been seen as victims. In fact he said something very important there, because obviously everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, is a product and subsequently a victim of their education, surroundings, culture, et cetera. Moreover, it's impossible to divide society in good and bad aspects, in victims and offenders, just like that. But no one paid attention to this.

Instead, it was asked if these men could ever forgive their molesters. NO, was the almost unanimous answer. Because he has violated your privacy, he has taken your youth from you, he has imposed a life sentence on you. No, my dear men, I would like to emphasize again that this is not the fault of that 'offender', but of society.

If we could all admit honestly that we are able to enjoy sex with somebody else, regardless of that person's gender; if every contact we established would not get us 'pigeonholed'; if children had the right to say NO but also YES if they want to experiment with sex, without immediately being burdened with feelings of guilt - in a society with such a climate problems like those of the gentlemen in 'Man/Woman' wouldn't exist at all.

It's very sad that so many creators of television programs and so many journalists don't realize that their witch hunt aimed at pedophiles sickens the social climate for EVERYBODY. Not only pedophiles become more cautious when it comes to (sexual) contact with children: parents and everybody who is professionally concerned with children adopt a more and more aloof attitude. That's not a good development. I refer to two articles that appeared in the newspaper 'de Volkskrant'. On 16 October I read an article by Esther Bakker and Annieke Kranenberg which stated that teachers have 'contactual fear'. They don't dare to console sad pupils anymore by patting them on their heads. Codes of conduct are agreed upon that make teachers feel uncertain. This causes the contact between teachers and pupils to become poorer and poorer.

According to an article by Marijke Lammers, published on 29 October, this contactual fear isn't present only in educational environments, but also in the sphere of professional assistance: 'Avoiding every kind of intimacy is not only a tragic loss in education and assistance; it also involves great risks. Detailed regulations impede the development of insights, responsibility and sensitivity concerning limits to the relation between teachers and pupils as well as assistants and clients. A controlled approach causes fear of incidents to dominate and creates an unsafe climate in which dilemmas in unclear situations are discussed even less. Despite all intentions, the breeding ground for abuse is consequently enlarged. [...] Pupils and clients do sometimes need a hand on their shoulder, a consoling arm around them, a tender touch or a soothing gesture, also when you're alone with them. These are realistic needs that can't be simply ignored.'

We can't afford our children to be raised with a fear of touching and sexuality, while our society is getting more and more impersonal. Sex on television is getting more explicit all the time, whereas just touching somebody is a heavily burdened matter. Gradually, every touch is regarded as a sexual gesture. With tenderness becoming less natural, aggression is quite obviously stimulated. Those are developments to which people should direct their attention.

I'm convinced that a society in which people respect each other more and are allowed to be who they are, even if they can't be easily labeled, would know less aggression and fear.

I agree with the professor of medical ethics in 'Network' that children ought to be protected. Rapists and abusers should be punished. I even agree that recidivistic sexual delinquents must observe rules when returning to their surroundings in order to avoid recurrence. But don't generalize and think of all pedophiles as molesters. Most pedophiles are meek, tender people who don't mean to cause the slightest harm to children and who let a child decide what is and what is not to happen in a relationship. If everybody had as much respect and attention for others as pedophiles have for children, society would be a lot friendlier.

The hostess of 'Man/Woman' named a telephone number at the end of the broadcast that could be dialed by everybody who was interested in the subject - including offenders! she said, for the phone calls would be treated confidentially.

"Talking is extremely important!" she concluded. I agree with that, but next time I would like to see a different approach, and some more nuance, and people who are willing to defend other opinions than those expressed, and... well, I'd also prefer a different subject.

source: 'Talking Is Extremely Important!' by Giovanni van Zinnen; OK Magazine, no. 66; December 1998